November 7, 2002

The Dog's New Day

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Cellist extraordinare Hank Roberts could retire now and spend the rest of his days admiring all his accomplishments. A resume that rivals any jazz cellist: Roberts was intergral in the ’80s underground jazz scene in downtown NYC. He played alongside avant spearheads like Bill Frisell and Tim Berne, and rubbed shoulders with crossovers like Joey Baron, and David Sanborn. His early projects, including the groundbreaking Miniature and Arcado, suggested that Hank was on his way toward weekly spots at the Knitting Factory, nights in smokey clubs, and a career consistently pushing the limits of jazz music. What few expected, that he’d ditch the Big Apple for the bustling jazz metropolis of Ithaca and favor bluegrass and roots to jazz, ended up being Mr. Roberts’ fate.

All the more fortunate for us. Since relocating here in 1989, Hank has acclimated himself in every fascet of the local music scene, finding an artistic environment even more fruitful and possibilies even more diverse than those in New York City. Productive friendships with banjo/guitarist/songwriter Richie Stearns and violist Eric Aceto culminated in Ti Ti Chickapea, a group that blended old-time string music, rustic Americana, and the stunning virtuosity of all three musicians. The mutual respect between Roberts and John Brown’s Body frontman Kevin Kinsella led Roberts to explore the cello’s potential as a reggae instrument, stretching the realization of Hank’s heroic versatility. Finally, Hank went a bit classical with the string quartet Waterbear.

Just when most people were comfortable with his apparent abandonment of jazz, Roberts once again proved his sleeves are long enough to conceal infinite surprises (his arms are really, really long!). The truth is that he never left his jazz roots behind in the first place. Instead, he chose to explore other African traditions: gospel, R & B, funk, and blues. And not unlike his old colleague Bill Frisell, some of these explorations sounded quite a bit like folk music. But the jazz, and the innovation, has been there all along. So it wasn’t so illogical when Roberts teamed up with local jazz trio Wingnut. Nor was it unreasonable that Hank has played many of the same songs in all of these creative incarnations, finding new lives with each new collective of artistic energies.

This nearly brings us up to date. The final step in the evolution of this thing called Wiggy Dog Boy came when Hank enlisted the help of his son, guitarist Jake Roberts. Jake has a band too, Oculus, which has been gaining local popularity for the last few years with their eclectic brew of rock, rhythm and blues, Celtic, and yes … jazz. Hank formed The Hank Roberts Group about a year ago as a sort of convergence of all his former collaborations: Jake on guitar and vocals, his Oculus cohort Will Evett-Miller on bass, respected drummer Bill King (whom Hank played with in his previous jazz groups), violinist Mer Boel (Waterbear), and key-player Michael Stark (Wingnut). This manfestation, with the exception of Mer, has been recast as Wiggy Dog Boy.

The album, named The Truth and Reconciliation Show, despite the familiar names associated with it, sounds unlike anything Hank has done to date. The sound is enormously dense, full of horns, soaring guitars, thick gospel-toned organ, King’s masterful drums, and more of Robert’s voice than fans are used to. Elements of hip-hop ignite his vocals, both in style and the blatantly political content. New Orleans jazz, straight rock n’ roll, acoustic folk, and just about everything else is thrown in.

This all makes for a live show that sounds too good to be true. And yet, as in the title of the album, it is the truth. Wiggy Dog Boy will play at the State Theatre on Saturday, November 9. Mailian kora player Mamadou Diabate will open the show, and the band will be joined by guests, including Paul Gordon (formerly of Second Hand Dance) and Richie Stearns. Expect many more tricks up those long, long sleeves.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas